Facebook under fire over claims of trending news item bias

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Facebook is facing a May 24th deadline to answer questions raised by a U.S. Senator who wrote a letter Tuesday to  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demanding that he respond to accusations that the company was politically biased in the items it places on its "Trending Topics" list.

People who see Facebook's list might think it is an objective look at what is popular or trending among its 1.59 billion users.

"Things that are happening right now, that are important, what everybody's looking at in the news," said Don Krieger of Napa who says he doesn't use Facebook as a primary news source but does visit the site frequently to check on friends.

"Trending suggests there's momentum, that interest is growing. That more and more people in a viral fashion kind of fashion are catching on to the significance," said Professor Ed Wasserman, who serves as Dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He says the controversy raises broader questions for consumers about how websites decide what content you see.

The tech news website Gizmodo reported on an anonymous source Monday who claimed to be a former Facebook employee. The source said company workers deliberately kept conservative politicians and topics off Facebook's trending list even though they were popular.

The article also said that several former Facebook contractors claimed they were instructed to omit news items that involved Facebook and inject other stories into the trending list even if they weren't popular.

"It does...pull the curtain back on this claim of transparency, this claim that social media are reflectively, reliably, and objectively showing you what the world around you is paying attention to," Wasserman said.

Wasserman says social media and search engine companies have been very secretive about how their algorithms are used to display information or targeted advertisements, and how much of a human hand is playing a role in what we see.

"Social media companies have done a very poor job in this transparency they always profess that they respect," Wasserman said, "This is proprietary technology that they're using in determining rankings and they're tremendously influential and important."

In his letter to Zuckerberg Tuesday, South Dakota Senator John Thune, the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation asked Facebook to investigate the matter, to reveal the process they use to determine the trending topics, how many stories had been suppressed on conservatives topics.

"Any attempt by a neutral and inclusive social media platform to censor or manipulate political discussion is an abuse of trust and inconsistent with the values of an open Internet,"

Facebook responded saying:

"Facebook is deeply committed to being a platform for people and perspectives of all viewpoints. Trending Topics is designed to surface popular conversations - no matter where they fall on the political spectrum - and our guidelines require the review team members to allow all points of view.

"We have seen allegations that people did not honor the intent of those guidelines. Although the allegations are anonymous, we take them seriously. We are continuing to investigate whether any violations took place.

"As we investigate, we will also keep reviewing our operational practices around Trending Topics - and if we find they are inadequate, we will take immediate steps to fix them.

"We have received Sen. Thune's request for more information about how Trending Topics works, and look forward to addressing his questions."

Wasserman says the publicity could pressure Facebook and other companies to be more transparent about their policies.

"I think it's about high time that social media companies were perfectly forthright in determining and in telling you and explaining how they decide what gets attention and what doesn't," Wasserman said.

He added, though, that if Facebook does have news curators who determine the content, that would be no different than a traditional newspaper, television or radio news organization.

Wasserman says that is why he does not believe that Senator Thune and the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee has any real regulatory power to impose penalities or compel Facebook to answer the questions they posed.